Myanmar (otherwise known as Burma) is a controversial place with a disheartening history of military dictatorship, political imprisonment, and censorship. Some say not to go in an effort to protest the government’s sometimes draconian laws, while others say that the only way to understand what is really going on in the country is to visit and see for yourself. Whether or not you agree with the protestors or the government, one thing is for sure – the people are warm, kind-hearted, and generous and they truly appreciate visitors to their captivating country. In addition, recent changes in leadership and government policies look hopeful and may just signify a period of positive change throughout the country.
Myanmar’s relative isolation may just be what has kept tradition and culture alive and well here. From the streets of Yangon to the plains of Bagan to the sparsely populated coasts along the Bay of Bengal, you are never far from a Buddhist temple or pagoda. The Buddhist religion is deep-rooted here, and even those with the least means will find a way to contribute to the pagoda or upcoming ceremonies. In addition, while some of the people here have adopted the Western uniform of trousers, dress shirts and t-shirts, the majority of the population still stick to the more comfortable and practical longyi and sarong. And it is quite common to see men, women and children with the traditional white paste called thanaka covering their cheeks and foreheads. This works as both a sunscreen and cooling agent, and is unique to Myanmar.
The streets of Yangon (once known as Rangoon) are crazy, chaotic and a bit downtrodden, but this is the capital city, and home to 5 million people after all. The shining jewel of Yangon is Shwedagon Pagoda, a massive gilded pagoda that sparkles in the sun from its perch on the top of Singuttara Hill. In the daytime the pagoda is a hive of activity, with red-robed Buddhist monks ambling along the pathways, beaming children scampering up and down the stairways, and devout Burmese praying in front of one of the many shrines and Buddha statues. Legend has it that the pagoda holds hairs from the head of the Buddha himself, and the pagoda is much revered by faithful Burmese the country over. At night time the pagoda is lit from below, and casts an otherworldly glow over the hillside that can be seen from certain vantage points within the city. In addition to Shwedagon Pagoda, there are a number of interesting sights to see in Yangon, including the Bogyoke Market for handicrafts and clothing, Inya Lake, which has beautiful gardens surrounding parts of the shoreline, and the house of Aung San Suu Kyi, who until just recently was confined to this crumbling estate on and off for over 15 years.
Bay of Bengal
Myanmar’s western coastal region skirts the Bay of Bengal, and extends from the Irrawaddy region in the south, all the way up to the border with Bangladesh. This area is home to some amazing untouched beaches that rival those found in Thailand and Indonesia. The first stop in a tour of the western beaches usually includes Pathien, the capital of the Ayeyarwaddy region. This is a small sleepy town with a few pretty pagodas. It is famous for its handmade, hand-painted parasols that come in every colour of the rainbow, and are beautiful souvenirs. From Pathien, the next logical stop is Chaung Tha, a beach town with a long, golden sandy shore and plenty of affordable bungalows and local restaurants. Ngue Saung beach is a bit of a journey to get to – the road is not great, and getting there by boat could take a while. But it is definitely worth the trip. Here bungalows rest directly on the pristine white sands, overlooking the ocean. As the beach faces west, this is a phenomenal spot to see the sunset. Further north, Ngapali beach is a popular destination for its quaint fishing villages and lovely beach dotted with palm trees. The black sand island of Zalat Htone is an interesting day trip from Ngapali.
There is something truly magical about Bagan with its vast plains that support over 2,000 Buddhist temples and pagodas. In fact, no other place in the world has such a large area of Buddhist temples. In its heyday from the 11th-13th centuries the region was one of the biggest centers for Buddhist scholarship in Southeast Asia. It was during this time that over 5,000 temples and pagodas were built in a range of styles. After the city was attacked by the Mongols in the 13th century, the city was abandoned and the temples went into decline, only to be further decimated by an earthquake in 1975. Today there are over 2,000 temples left, many of which have been repaired, although quite a few are still in ruins. Tickets to the area cost USD $10, and a ticket is needed to check in to a guesthouse or hotel in the nearby town of ‘New Bagan’. One of the best ways to see the temples, pagodas and stupas is to rent a bicycle and leisurely cruise around the stunning plains.
Mandalay was the former capital of Burma, and the home of the last kings of the empire. Today, the city is a modern Burmese city, with dusty streets and laneways, and many glass structures built by the large Chinese population that resides here. Vestiges of the old kingdom still remain though, such as the walled Royal Palace, which houses a maze of rooms and pavilions. Unfortunately. the palace was rebuilt by the military junta using forced labour, and many of the original materials have been replaced by modern constructions. It still makes for an interesting wander though. One place that should not be missed is the Mahamuni Paya, a Buddhist temple that is considered the second holiest pagoda in Myanmar, just after Shewdagon Pagoda. Here there is a giant, 4-metre high Buddha statue decorated in gold and precious stones. Everyday there is a ‘facewashing’ ceremony here to honour the statue and the Buddha himself. Mandalay is also considered the religious center of Myanmar, and it is common to see many red-robed Buddhist monks strolling through the streets. Be sure to try the great variety of food here, including spicy Shan noodles, hearty Chinese BBQ, Indian roti, and Muslim Chinese noodles.
Inle Lake is a stunning area in the Shan State of central Myanmar that features jagged mountains that spill down to the large lake. On the lake there are numerous floating villages, shops and gardens, and the fisherman on the lake use a uniwue method of paddling with their foot. Tours around the lake are extremely popular, although a half-day or full-day trip will include many stops at shops where tour guides will take a commission for any goods purchased. Tickets to the lake cost USD $5.00, and it is easy to find guides who are willing to take you around. The surrounding areas of Inle Lake are also lovely for hiking the mountains or visiting gorgeous pagodas.
** Note – To visit Myanmar you must have a visa in advance. There are no visas on arrival. The easiest place to get a visa is in Bangkok, where it only takes a few days. It is strongly advised to take cash into the country as there are no ATMs in Myanmar. Transactions for large purchases such as accommodation, tours, and large goods can be made in US dollars. For smaller transactions you will need to change money into the local currency of kyets. Kyets can not be exchanged outside the country, so it is suggested you try and use them up before you go.